Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Even had you skill
In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark" – and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
– E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.
The Duke lists all the obstacles that prevented him from talking to the Duchess directly about his problems with her behavior.
- He claims that he doesn’t have the "skill / In speech" (35-36) to explain what he wants from her – but his skillful rhetoric in the rest of the poem suggests otherwise.
- He also suggests that she might have resisted being "lessoned" (40), that is, taught a lesson by him, if she had "made excuse" (41) for her behavior instead.
- But even if he were a skilled speaker, and even if she didn’t argue, he says he still wouldn’t talk to her about it.
- Why? Because he thinks that bringing it up at all would be "stooping" to her level, and he refuses to do that.
Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?
- The Duke admits to his listener (who is this guy, anyway?) that the Duchess was sweet to him – she did smile at him whenever he passed by her.
- But, he says, it’s not like that was special. She smiles at everyone in the same way.
This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
- The Duke claims that "This grew" (45) – that is, the Duchess's indiscriminate kindness and appreciation of everything got more extreme.
- The Duke then "gave commands" (45) and as a result "All smiles stopped together" (46).
- Our best guess is that he had her killed, but the poem is ambiguous on this point.
- It’s possible that he had her shut up in a dungeon or a nunnery, and that she’s as good as dead.
- She’s not his Duchess anymore – she’s his "last Duchess" – so she’s clearly not on the scene anymore.
There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise?
- The Duke ends his story of the Duchess and her painting by gesturing toward the full-body portrait again, in which she stands "As if alive" (47).